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Local Restaurants Face New Challenge Of The Pandemic: A Shortage Of Workers

As more people are becoming vaccinated, customers are returning to restaurants in droves—-but workers are not. A lack of employees is just the latest crisis restaurants both locally and across the nation are facing as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.

Peninsula restaurants, as well as hotels and retail businesses, are all struggling to hire dedicated employees to meet the demand. The worker shortage can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably unemployment benefits. People are essentially being paid more from the government for not working than they would be if they were on the job. The restaurant industry, in particular, is being hit the hardest since most waiters and waitresses make below minimum wage while relying on tips.

“It is certainly the combination of the extension of unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, and mitigating the risk of exposure from guests that is keeping millions of restaurant workers home,” said Jessica Smith, Director of Sales and Marketing for Opus 9 Steakhouse and Craft 31 in Williamsburg and Schlesinger’s Steakhouse in Newport News.

“Restaurant workers often also have no health insurance and therefore may be more wary to risk being in the public.  Because of this, the restaurant industry nationwide is suffering an employee shortage. We have friends coast to coast in this industry that are unable to staff their restaurants.”

The result? Many local restaurants have reduced their hours, either opening later, closing earlier, or closing more full days throughout the week altogether to give staff a break. The staff shortage also means longer wait times for meals, which frustrates many customers who don’t understand why tables are sitting empty.

“We are doing everything that we can to keep up with the demand and volume that seems to be growing every day,” Smith said. “As more and more people are vaccinated, they are more comfortable going out to quell their cabin fever.”

Williamsburg’s restaurants have been especially busy given its location as a driving destination, enabling people who want to begin traveling again to visit and dine out without having to fly. Most patrons come from nearby states with stricter dining rules due to the covid-19 pandemic.

Some local restaurants are so desperate, they’ve been offering $22 an hour during the busiest shifts. Other restaurants nationwide have resorted to using robots to deliver food to dining tables.

The Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association (WARA) recently implemented the Park & Dine program as a way to support local restaurants while lightening the load of overworked staff. (see related story).

Nearly all of WARA’s members currently have staffing issues. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, none of WARA’s 110 members have permanently closed as a result.

“We are very proud of our members, who all support and help each other, and I think that is what is helping us get through this,” said Debi Schaefer, WARA Executive Director. “We are just asking people to please be patient as we are doing everything we can. We just can’t seat people if we don’t have people to wait on them.”

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